The Biden administration declared last month that states must administer federally mandated standardized tests for the 2020-2021 school year — though it offered flexibility about how and when as well as what they should do with the scores.

Last spring, as the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, the Trump administration gave states waivers from the federal mandate to give the exams, which have been annual spring exercises since the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

A number of states had asked the Biden Education Department to do the same thing, saying it would be difficult to impossible to administer the exams when millions of students still are not in classrooms. But more than a week before Miguel Cardona was confirmed March 1 by the Senate as education secretary, the department issued its decision on testing.

The department said it would talk with each state about their testing programs and said there was room for more flexibility, but it did not say what that could be. Some states have decided to postpone the tests until fall. Others said they don’t want to use the regular end-of-year exams.

That’s the case that Michigan’s education leaders make in the following post. Instead of using the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as M-STEP, they want to use other tests they say are more appropriate for the moment.

This was written by state schools Superintendent Michael F. Rice and State Board of Education President Casandra E. Ulbrich.

By Michael F. Rice and Casandra E. Ulbrich

It has been a brutally difficult school year, for students, parents, and educators. It may get worse if our schools are forced to spend a good portion of the spring on year-end M-STEP testing [the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress] when teachers could better spend that time working with their students.

The good news is there is an alternative. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that states have unique circumstances and may need additional flexibility in how they measure student performance this year. Michigan students need this flexibility, and we can assess student performance in a better way in this unprecedented school year.

We urge U.S. [Education] Secretary Miguel Cardona to consider our unique circumstances and the system we have in place to measure academic performance this year to best serve our children.

Last summer, in part at the urging of the state superintendent, the Michigan Legislature approved — and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed into law — the requirement that all Michigan school districts would have to administer benchmark assessments to their students at the beginning and end of the school year.

These national benchmark assessments are locally administered annually to millions of students across the country.

However, unlike high-stakes, end-of-year tests, these benchmark tests allow educators to quickly discern where children are in reading and math, to share the same information with parents, to target resources, and to put in place supports and interventions for children. In mandating the assessments, Michigan foresaw the present moment and took early action.

Given the current circumstances, the U.S. Department of Education should allow states to use these tests in place of a summative assessment.

When it comes to any data collection, there are two critical considerations: validity and reliability. To be valid, an assessment tool needs to actually measure what it intends to measure. Reliability speaks to the accuracy or replicability of the results.

Changes in testing conditions, student emotional state, and student physical health can all have a dramatic impact on test results. For most of the year, a majority of Michigan students have been educated remotely and under extremely challenging circumstances.

High-stakes assessments cannot be validly and reliably administered at a distance. So, we either require remote students to return to campus for the purpose of taking a test or we forgo testing students who have yet to return to in-person instruction. Either way, the results will be questionable at best.

So why require spring M-STEP tests this year? Those who support high-stakes testing claim that it provides accountability and transparency through comparison. But if the data are flawed, it does neither.

If standardized tests are required this year, a much better alternative would be for the Department of Education to allow states, like Michigan, the option to use locally chosen and administered, national benchmark tests. Approximately 90 percent of Michigan districts utilized benchmark assessments prior to the pandemic, and ALL administered benchmark tests in the fall, as they will this spring.

Educators and by extension students benefit from the use of benchmark assessments. Indeed, many districts give benchmark assessments three times a year, with a mid-year assessment as well. These tests efficiently support teaching and learning in schools across the country. Benchmarks provide everything necessary for an assessment during a pandemic and protect time this spring for what is most important: our children’s social and emotional well-being and academic growth.

In Michigan, while most school districts have an in-person option at this point, as a rule fewer than half the students have been attending in person, daily, during the year. Children of color and those in low-income households are more likely to be educated virtually.

Unlike spring M-STEP tests, benchmark assessments are able to be administered both in school and at a distance. In other words, benchmark assessments will produce data for more students. Indeed, to rely on spring M-STEP tests is to exclude a significant portion of the children in the state, those that have been educated virtually: disproportionately of color, disproportionately poor and working class. In other words, it is the antithesis of equity.

While results of benchmark assessments taken at a distance will have to be carefully scrutinized, there is nonetheless a value for educators and parents to have the data.

Many students are just now returning to in-person learning. Like others, these students need substantial social and emotional supports and focused instruction. They don’t need end-of-year state summative tests. Let’s learn from the benchmark test results and use these data — and the time this spring — to support our children’s social, emotional and academic needs.